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The effects of a warming planet and disrupted climate patterns are already becoming evident. The rate of change means we are at risk in our lifetimes. However, if we act now and work together to reduce our emissions, the catastrophic effects of climate change may be avoided.
New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Inventory 1990-2005 showed that New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions across all sectors for 2005 totalled 77.2 Mt CO2-e, and that emissions are now 25 per cent higher than in 1990. New Zealand accounts for only a small proportion (0.3 percent) of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, but we have the 12th highest per capita emissions in the developed world.
In 1990, just under 80 per cent of total electricity generation in New Zealand came from hydro, geothermal, and wind sources (renewable energy). With 35 per cent growth in electricity demand since 1990, renewable sources made up about 70 per cent of total electricity generation in 2005.
Wind generation capacity in New Zealand has grown rapidly in recent years, increasing by more than 500 per cent from 2000 to 2005 (from 119 to 610 GWh per annum). It is expected that wind generation will continue to increase substantially over the next few years.
Geothermal energy has the potential to make a significant contribution to New Zealand's energy requirements, either through electricity generation or, with even higher levels of efficiency, as a direct source of heat. In the longer term, marine energy could also play a major role.
Despite development of renewable energy supplies, there has been relatively low investment in energy efficiency for homes, office buildings, shops, and light industry and transport. There is considerable opportunity to improve the energy performance of our buildings, offering the added benefits of improved health and air quality.
Electricity demand will increase 40 per cent by 2030 and energy-related greenhouse gases (including transport) will increase by 35 per cent under a business-as-usual scenario. Given the typically long life and major capital required for energy infrastructure, it is critical that electricity generation investment decisions recognise that fossil fuels will face an emissions price in the future.
Unless we take action our transport emissions will substantially increase. In developing actions to reduce emissions, our relatively high level of car ownership; our low, although increasing, use of public transport; and our limited rail network with dispersed cities and rugged terrain must all be taken into account.
Almost half our emissions come from pastoral agriculture, the backbone of our food exports. This presents a major challenge for New Zealand because the technology currently available will achieve only limited emissions reductions. Substantial research and technology development is essential.
Despite these challenges, the transport sector offers opportunities. New Zealand quickly adopts new technologies from overseas and this will soon include more fuel-efficient vehicles. The use of biofuels and plug-in electric/hybrid cars is likely to grow, complementing our strengths in biotechnology and renewable energy.
In the tourism sector growing concerns about the contribution that greenhouse gas emissions from aviation make to climate change make a proactive New Zealand strategy on this issue prudent. New Zealand faces potential risk from changes in consumer preference away from long-haul travel, and specifically away from travel to New Zealand.
New Zealand has a relatively small number of plants emitting non-energy related greenhouse gases from industrial processes. We use our natural resources where we can in the production of steel from iron sand, in cement production, and in production of ammonia, urea and lime for fertilisers. Our renewable electricity creates aluminium.
New Zealand’s industrial sector faces both challenges and opportunities from climate change. The challenges relate to those industries that are emissions intensive and will need to either reduce emissions levels or face the cost of those emissions.
But there are opportunities for industries involved in emissions-reducing activity, such as developing and producing energy-efficient or renewable technologies. The challenge is therefore, to be nimble, smart and flexible in our approach.
We have made huge improvements in the way we manage waste, with emissions now 26 per cent below those in 1990. Only 10 years ago, we had 327 rubbish dumps and tips in the country. Today, we have only 90 landfills. More than 95 per cent of New Zealanders now have access to kerbside recycling collections. However, our waste will always be a problem because we keep creating it.
New Zealand’s land management sectors (agriculture and forestry) are hugely important to the New Zealand economy. They are significant generators of income, representing about 65 per cent of the value of our total merchandise exports and about 17 per cent of New Zealand’s total GDP - a large percentage relative to most developed countries.
The land management sectors are also of particular importance to Māori, as owners and managers of large tracts of pastoral land, farmland, and indigenous and exotic forests.
Agriculture and forestry constitute the biggest land use in New Zealand. Of New Zealand’s total land area, 39 per cent is in pasture, 1.6 per cent is in horticulture and cropping, and 6.6 per cent is in planted production forest.
Greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture are growing more slowly than other sectors (about 1 per cent a year), but reducing these emissions is a particular challenge.
There is a close relationship between food production and greenhouse gas emissions with limited technical solutions – particularly for methane from ruminant animals (which accounts for 31 per cent of national emissions). Nitrous oxide emissions, which make up 18 per cent of our total emissions, are more amenable than methane to technological solutions at this time.
New Zealand scientists are engaged in world-leading research to develop technologies and management practices that reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. This research is led by the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium and funded by industry and government.
Our agricultural sector presents many opportunities for New Zealand. We are capable of leading biotechnology development which could be transferred to other countries facing similar challenges.
For example, nitrous oxide emissions can be reduced by better soil and stock management and through better use of fertiliser and nitrification inhibitors. Lowering emissions this way does not affect the production of food and has the added bonus of reducing water pollution.
The forestry sector makes a major contribution to New Zealand’s economy and environment. It is also critical to New Zealand’s response to the challenge of climate change.
Forestry delivers many environmental benefits and these can help us both build a more sustainable economy and adapt to climate change.
Forests and forestry also have a major role to play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. As trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as wood. When they are harvested, much of this carbon is released back into the atmosphere.
New Zealand’s timber industry is now based almost entirely on planted forests, which cover 6.6 per cent of New Zealand’s land area, but the new forest planting rate has fallen in recent years.
Globally, about 20 per cent of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions into the atmosphere come from deforestation. In New Zealand, deforestation of plantation forests has increased rapidly in recent years and this is expected to continue unless measures are introduced to actively manage the process.
Higher planting rates and managing deforestation will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They will also improve water quality and reduce soil erosion.